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Public vs. Private Compassion: Colored Ribbons, T-shirts, and SUVs

Public vs. Private Compassion: Colored Ribbons, T-shirts, and SUVs

The UK think tank Civitas ( just announced the release of a new publication with the intriguing title of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes It Really Is Cruel to Be Kind, by Patrick West. It is so far only available in the UK and so neither Susan nor Steve has been able to read the full book yet, but the flood of press and Internet attention given to its launch has started our mental engines. You can read the official press release and summary of the book’s themes at

According to reviewers, West feels that:

  • People who wear ribbons to show empathy with worthy causes and mourn in public for celebrities they have never met are part of a growing culture of "ostentatious caring which is about feeling good, not doing good."
  • Sporting colorful empathy ribbons, weeping in public over the deaths of murdered children, wear red noses for the starving in Africa…[does] “not help the poor, diseased, dispossessed or bereaved. Our culture of ostentatious caring concerns, rather, projecting one's ego, and informing others what a deeply caring individual you are.”
  • "We live in a post-emotional age, one characterised by crocodile tears and manufactured emotion ... Mourning sickness is a religion for the lonely crowd that no longer subscribes to orthodox churches. Its flowers and teddies are its rites, its collective minutes' silence its liturgy and mass. But these bonds are phoney, ephemeral and cynical." (He also refers to this as “recreational grief.”)

Susan and Steve ruminate on how public – and private – displays of emotion or politics relate to volunteering as we know it.

Susan’s Point of View

Steve's Point of View

Although the quotes released to the media indicate strong disdain and dismissal of modern public displays of caring without contributing anything, in fairness to West I’ll refrain from any direct rebuttal of (or agreement with) his points until after I’ve read his full thesis. But various reporters and commentators are already disseminating the selected negative comments, so the battle is engaged.

I understand the root of the criticism and acknowledge my own concerns and discomfort when I observe painless – and sometimes thoughtless – displays of solidarity with some cause or another that actually requires long-term focused action to solve or change. It’s legitimate to worry that public displays of emotion run the danger of diverting people from a more complex message, community problem, or course of action that can be taken.  Energy can be focused in the wrong direction and badly-needed actions can be ignored.

In discussing this issue with our Web Architect Kristin Floyd, she reminded me about what happened a few years ago at the Philadelphia Zoo, when a dreadful fire killed all the primates. The media and the public rallied to rebuild the primate house because they felt so awful about the death of the gorillas and apes who were much loved. The Zoo administrators suggested that a priority was first to finish the "Cats" project underway, which was critically needed for rare animals still alive, but the public wouldn't hear of it.   All the energy was directed at a new facility for primates yet unidentified – a decision based on making the public feel better rather than meeting the most pressing needs of the animals.  The new primate area is wonderful but the tigers and lions pace on!

Certainly wearing a ribbon, T-shirt or button does nothing directly to alleviate or solve the issue addressed (maybe a smidgen of fundraising, if the item was sold for cash). Rather, the point is to raise awareness and visibility, generate a “bandwagon” effect of making a cause popular, and show affiliation.

Note, however, that there are safe causes and risky causes. It seems popular and noble to fight breast cancer, but taking a minority stand through a lapel button against something like the American invasion of Iraq requires gumption.

Symbols of Support

It is hardly a new phenomenon to “go public” with one’s frame of mind. Campaign paraphernalia such as buttons and window posters declaring for a candidate or cause can be found going back hundreds of years at the Smithsonian and other countries’ historical museums. In the 1960s the American tool of choice of conspicuous compassion was the bumper sticker – some vehicles sporting a half dozen or more pleas to Save the Whales, Hug Your Child, or Buy Union.

In the United States , perhaps the oldest national ribbon mania is the wearing or display of a yellow ribbon to demonstrate loyalty to loved ones away from home, usually at war or in prison. Although many trace its roots to the Civil War, the tradition is much older and not even American. See the wonderful essay on this subject from the American Folklife Center, “ How the Yellow Ribbon Became a National Folk Symbol,” by Gerald E. Parsons at His conclusion at the end of his fascinating history is key:

Ultimately, the thing that makes the yellow ribbon a genuinely traditional symbol is neither its age nor its putative association with the American Civil War, but rather its capacity to take on new meanings, to fit new needs and, in a word, to evolve.

And it is evolving still. During the Persian Gulf Crisis, for example, there emerged a new impulse to combine yellow ribbons with hand-painted signs, American flags, conventional Christmas ornaments, seasonal banners, and other such elements to create elaborate, decorative displays – displays that one scholar has termed "folk assemblages."

Because the yellow ribbon is very much a living tradition, there is no way to tell who among us may help to steer its course, or in what direction.

There are huge and tiny causes for every color of ribbon: red for support of people with HIV/AIDS (and also for drug-free youth), pink for breast cancer awareness, green for environmentalism, blue violet for pagan girls…think I’m kidding? Go to which proclaims itself "The most comprehensive ribbon list on the 'Net" and just keep scrolling down! As with so many other things, a good idea taken to the extreme becomes useless or even counterproductive.

I suggest that when a cause is new or controversial (perhaps when there are possible negative consequences for going public with one’s opinion), the simple act of wearing a symbol can be considered an act of volunteering. Once the cause becomes popular and socially acceptable (no more risk), ribbons and pins can become just another piece of jewelry. For those of us in the volunteer community, the challenge is to take the desire of someone to affiliate with our cause to the next level by offering more hands-on volunteer opportunities.

I think that public outpourings of emotion imply reservoirs of desire to affiliate and make a difference. It is my sense that the majority of people who wear ribbons and T-shirts are largely unaware of what else they might do (beyond writing a check). Maybe, if we already have active volunteers wearing our symbol, we ought to design a companion button with the words: “Ask me how to get more involved.” For an interesting online discussion by service-learning folks in Colorado on the topic of ribbons vs. actual contributions to a cause, see

When No One Is Watching

In The Importance of Being Earnest, the hilariously cynical playwright Oscar Wilde had the character Gwendolen say to Jack: “I hope you will always look at me just like that, especially when there are other people present” (Act I, 2). 1 It’s common to extol the selflessness of volunteering, but visible volunteers (ideally) gain recognition, praise, and positive reinforcement. It’s much harder to do good without an audience.

I was thinking about this last weekend at the food court of a local shopping mall. As I finished my meal and prepared to toss the disposable items, I contemplated for about ten seconds whether I should throw out or wash and reuse the heavy-duty plastic utensils I was given. Now this might be a uniquely American dilemma, but it is faced by us daily. I hate the waste and environmental impact of this sort of trash, and I truly believe that, if every one of us paid more attention and stopped doing the simply expedient thing, we could have a remarkable cumulative impact on the problem. But I tossed the knife and fork.

My concern is that, until we can make private behavior mirror public espousal of support for a cause, all we accomplish is window dressing.

A good example is the current surge in sales of Sport Utility Vehicles in North America, most purchased by folks with no real reason (a dozen kids, living on a mountain top) except “I like them.” I am galled when I see an SUV barreling down the highway with an American flag (often shredded by weather and speed) protruding from the rear window (an extra ten points for a bumper sticker that proclaims some do-good cause). The disconnect between the display of patriotic symbols and the sheer size of the vehicle being driven is disturbing. One person cannot end the US dependency on fossil fuels, clean-up the air we breathe, or lower traffic fatalities. But thousands of people cumulatively deciding one by one to drive an SUV can make it all worse.

For me, the true meaning of volunteering is taking personal responsibility for doing what we can. In a world that is brimming with social concerns, no one can “do” enough and so many do nothing. Some do the easiest thing, be it writing a check or wearing a ribbon. Others make time to participate more fully in working for change by serving alongside like-minded people. Perhaps the biggest challenge is “walking the talk” in one’s daily life. The individual choices we make in what we buy (and keep, mend or discard), how we raise our children, which battles to fight and how, whether to pay taxes honestly, and other ethical decision-making ultimately form the kinds of communities we want.

The question is whether or not we believe that more people want to create a positive world than a negative one. Do we think that, left on their own, most people will do only what’s best for them or – assuming they know their options – will select a course that meets others’ needs as well as their own?

Interestingly, in learning more about Patrick West, I found this quote as well in one of the reports on the Civitas site. It’s by Frank Prochaska in Schools of Citizenship: Charity and Civic Virtue (Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society, London, 2002):

Which is more subversive – and corrosive – to believe in altruism or to see it simply as a cloak of self interest? Even if altruism did not exist, it would be necessary to believe in it. Pessimists in power are prone to despotism.

Guess I’m incurable when it comes to believing that most people actually prefer doing the right thing.

Steve’s Point of View

In the interests of full disclosure Steve will admit that he’s the owner of one of the obnoxious SUVs and is totally unrepentent. We would have settled for a pick-up truck but the weather in the Pacific Northwest makes that a bit impractical for most hauling purposes.

In our comments we are deliberately ignoring the silly elitist prejudices of people who live in urban metropolitan areas of the eastern United States and have never seen a real wilderness in their lives….

Accordingly, if you’re looking for us in person you can find me in the large gas guzzler. Susan will be easily identified as the wearer of the T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Save the Forks!”

Keeping Score

As my friend Rick Lynch points out on frequent occasions, the notion of “keeping score” is an incredibly powerful one. It leads in sports to people attempting to improve their scores and in other areas to people attempting to set records for some of the most bizarre behavior (such as most hours spent bathing naked in baked beans, an officially contested Guinness record).

In general this is Good – it gives people a sense of where they are and some incentive to do better.

Applying this notion to charity, however, has always bothered me, even though it is incredibly common:

  • In fundraising we tend to praise those who donate the most money, with little importance attached to whether it was “difficult” for them to do so.
  • In volunteering we tend to give awards to those who donate the most hours, with the result that seniors tend to sweep the field with great regularity.

It’s not that this is Bad; but it is definitely slanted. And it is most definitely judgmental.

Patrick West’s comments on conspicuous compassion strike me as being in this same vein – some forms of contribution are judged more Worthy than others. And to be Worthy you have to make an effort that justifies your status as a True Believer, one of those who has made the effort, passed the test, proved their mettle.

True Activists versus Volunteers

Many years ago, when I was still silly enough to be in a position where I had to supervise people, I became the director of a relatively large grant with a somewhat unusual staff. The grant was to provide technical assistance to a group of neighborhood associations and the staff was a set of hardcore 60’s political activists, all older, meaner and more opinionated than me. To be “accepted” by this group you had to prove your devotion to The Cause; which meant attacking The System (any System, frankly, they weren’t picky) at all times.

Supervising this group basically meant finding things outside of work they could fight about, because fighting and arguing was something they really enjoyed and because the most likely work-related issue they would fight about was going to be me.

One of our continuing debates was whether “volunteering” was an acceptable form of behavior or whether it simply helped perpetuate the evils of The System. After all, most volunteers helped people, a merely palliative form of assistance, instead of spending their time fighting to resolve the ultimate issues which constituted Root Causes of the difficulties of those in need.

I have some intellectual sympathy for this notion, and a great deal of practical impatience, for two reasons:

  • Letting people starve or suffer or die while you work on long-term fixes has never struck me as especially nice; and
  • in the thirty-odd years since I participated in these debates I’ve noticed that we have yet to eliminate any of these Original Causes, suggesting that this could be a harder and longer task that we might like.

And so, to me, working on Root Causes is as praiseworthy as working to help those afflicted by them, but not necessarily more praiseworthy.

The Best and the Good

A while back I ran into a phrase whose origin I have been unable to trace: “Don’t let the Best be the enemy of the Good.” It means that one shouldn’t put so much focus on accomplishing something to such a degree of perfection that it prevents you from accomplishing anything at all.

Doing something which is merely Good is still preferable to not doing anything at all because your expectations are beyond your ability. We can all admire perfection, much as we can all aspire to Sainthood, but the reality is that few of us would devote the effort to achieve either, and the world would be a very weird place if we all tried to do so.

In most cases, we do what we can, attempting to get on with the rest of our lives while doing so. Sometimes we wear T-shirts; sometimes we donate small sums of money; sometimes we volunteer for a weekend afternoon because that’s the time we have available; sometimes we buy Girl Scout cookies even though we don’t like sweets; sometimes we simply talk to friends about an issue over dinner and express our viewpoint.

Most of us aren’t Martyrs for a Cause. Most of us don’t even imagine that anything we personally do is going to Save the World, or even a small part of it. Most of us, to put in bluntly, aren’t that arrogant.

We keep doing things, however, for the most part in quiet ways – not in public and not emblazoned with slogans on T-shirts, and often without anyone else even knowing. Just like hordes of other volunteers who are somewhat embarrassed by the notion of being recognized by what they do, much less recognized in public. And that attitude is far more common than wearing a T-shirt because you believe others will think you’re a better person.

Here’s a simple fact for Patrick West – every contribution, no matter how small, makes a difference in the world.


1 For the record, in the same play, Wilde has Cecily say: “I don’t quite like women who are interested in philanthropic work. I think it is so forward of them.”

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